The the sofa and Sally sees this. Sally

The concept of theory of mind has been, and continues to
be, extensively researched within psychology. To have a theory of mind means to
be able to attribute mental states – such as beliefs, desires, emotions,
knowledge; to oneself and to other people, as well as being able to understand the
concept that other people have beliefs, desires, emotions and knowledge that
are different to our own (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). In order to possess theory
of mind, one must be able to make inferences about the representational states
of others and accordingly predict their behaviour as a result (Lewis and
Mitchell, 1994). The term ‘theory of mind’ was first introduced in 1978 by
Premack and Woodruff as they investigated whether chimpanzees possessed theory
of mind by presenting them with videotapes of problematic situations – such as
a banana being out of reach – and then with photographs; one of which
represented a solution to the problem. Their findings were that, because the
chimpanzees consistently chose the correct photographic solution, the animals
understood the problem from the perspective of the person in the videotape. This
is an example of what it means to possess a theory of mind.

Wellman (2014) explains that everyday
mentalistic understanding is based around three ‘categories’ of the mind;
beliefs, desires and actions. This means that in their daily lives, people
engage in acts they believe will get them what they desire. However, theory of
mind goes beyond these ‘categories’, as a methodical system of interconnected constructs that include emotions, perception,
ignorance and more, all of which ‘overlap’ with
beliefs, desires and emotions.

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In recent decades, ‘belief’ has
been assessed through the use of false-belief tasks, which can shed light on
what children think or believe about what others think or believe. A typical task
contains a simple storyline. Cohen (2002) provides an example; the children are
presented with dolls named John and Sally. John places an object behind the
sofa and Sally sees this. Sally then leaves the room and John moved the object
from behind the sofa to another location, for example into a box. When Sally
returns, she believes the object to still be behind the sofa. Before the age of
3, if a child is asked where Sally will look for the object they will typically
answer that she will look in the box. However, between the ages of 3 and 4
something changes and children will then answer that Sally will look behind the
sofa. This demonstrates that as children approach the age of 4 they gain the
ability to understand that Sally will have a false belief about the object’s
location as she was out of the room when it was moved, thus they are able to
see the situation from Sally’s point of view.

Our minds are inhabited by thoughts,
beliefs, desires, intentions, emotions, perceptions and other mental states,
all of which allow us to understand things from another person’s point of view
(Flavell, 2004).  However, it is the point
at which a child develops these abilities and is able to understand situations
from a perspective that is not their own; i.e. the point at which they develop
theory of mind, that has been heavily debated. The traditional assumption
within psychology is that children gain theory of mind aged approximately 4
years, and this essay aims to investigate the previous research on this topic
and, due to the large amount of supporting research, argue the standpoint that
children do not fully develop a theory of mind until the age of 4 years.


Throughout research into the
rubric of children’s theory of mind there have been many proposed theories that
contest when the development of theory of mind in children actually takes place.
One of the most notable of these theories is the ‘modular theory of theory of
mind’ or ‘theory of mind module account’. Fodor, (1983) originally described
this theory by explaining that theory of mind has a ‘specific, innate basis’ meaning
that the processes by which the essential ‘character’ of a theory of mind is determined
do not apply to other cognitive domains; therefore inferring that the
development of theory of mind differs to that of other cognitive domains, such
as the development of mental skills or general knowledge acquisition. Theorists
supporting the module account propose a distinct theory of mind ‘module’ within
the brain that produces representations of human activity; meaning that this
module allows a child to gain understanding of the thoughts, beliefs, desires and
emotions of another person. These theorist dismiss all claims of earlier development
and preach that this significant conceptual change takes place within the child’s
mind at approximately 4 years of age, therefore providing support for the line
of argument in this essay.

Further support for this claim
can be taken from various studies using the false-belief task. A classic
example of a false-belief task is that of Wimmer and Perner (1983). In their
studies, they presented children of different ages with a scenario; a boy
places his chocolate in a cupboard and leaves the room, then his mother moves
the chocolate to a drawer in his absence. The children are asked where the boy
will look for his chocolate when he returns to the room. In their study, none
of the 3-4 year old, 57% of the 4-6 year old and 86% of the 6-9 year old
children indicated correctly that the boy would look in the original location;
the cupboard. This provides evidence that the children who answer correctly
understand that the boy’s actions are dependent on his beliefs, rather than the
real situation, thus demonstrating how children are able to understand
situations from another person’s point of view; yet again providing findings
that children gain theory of mind at approximately 4 years of age.

Yet another example of the use
of the false belief to exhibit how children at age 4 years are much more
solidified in their abilities to understand situations and emotions from the
points of views of others comes from Perner (1999). In this study, children
aged 3, 4 and 5 years were shown a distinctively marked candy box which, in
actuality, contained pencils. When asked what a person who had not seen the
contents of the box would think it contained, 4 and 5 year olds were generally
confident in attributing different beliefs to other children (i.e. that they
would believe it contained candy) whereas 3 year olds were wholly less
confident. Some researchers even reported that younger participants became
distressed, confused or ‘clammed-up’ when asked this question (as cited by
Cohen, 2002).


Despite the large amount of
research suggesting that it is at age 4 years that children develop theory of
mind, there has been an abundance of research conducted in order to investigate
younger children’s abilities in terms of their understanding of others’
thoughts, beliefs, emotions and desires.

In order to succeed in
false-belief tasks, one must be able to understand how another person perceives
a situation. Astington & Gopnik (1991) cite Lempers, Flavell & Flavell
(1977), regarding their discoveries that 2 year olds are able to, to a degree,
understand perception. They can produce perceptions in others by showing them
things that they themselves are perceiving, even some novel tasks such as
showing someone a picture that is at the bottom of a small box. Astington &
Gopnik (1991) also cite Yaniv & Shatz (1988) whose findings show that by
the age of 3, children are also able to understand that they can ‘deprive’ others
of perception by hiding things. Thirdly, 2 year olds are also able to make
accurate judgements of another person’s emotion if they also know that person’s
goals and the outcome of their actions (Wellman & Wooley, 1990).

Research such as these studies
demonstrate how certain aspects of cognition that are required in order to
possess theory of mind, such as understanding perception within oneself and
others, can be acquired before the age of 4 years; even as young as age 2
years. Children aged 3 and 4 years are more central to the topic of research of
theory of mind as they tend to show a more explicit understanding of the mind. 3-year-old
children are unable to distinguish between the apparent and real identity of ‘deceptive
objects’ – for example, a sponge made to look like a rock. They are, however,
able to distinguish between real and mental entities, for example when being
told that one boy has a cookie and one boy is thinking about a cookie they are
able to tell you which of the cookies can be eaten (Wellman & Estes, 1986).
This just goes to show how the 3 year olds have developed enough in order to
comprehend the difference between reality and imagination as well as being able
to view a situation from another person’s point of view. Perhaps children develop
a theory of mind before the age of 4 years.


Over the past 3 decades of
research into children’s theory of mind, the false-belief task is the most
common method used when investigating the topic, and to have proven very useful
in measuring a child’s understanding of mental states such as beliefs, desires
and emotions. However, there are some issues with the actual method used in false-belief
tasks. There could perhaps be some confounding variables; for example, 3 year
olds may fail the false belief tasks as often as they do due to a lack of understanding
of language, or other cognitive aspects required to fully comprehend the task.
Lewis and Osborne (1990) found that when the test question was clarified, more 3
year olds succeeded in acknowledging another person’s false belief, compared to
those that were asked using vaguer words in Perner, Leeker & Wimmer’s 1987
original study.

Southgate, Senju & Csibra (2007)
conducted a slightly different type of false-belief task in which they
presented 2-year-old children with a non-verbal task which used an eye tracker
to measure anticipatory looking. During the task, an actor witnesses the hiding
of a toy in a primary location which is later removed when the actor is away
from the scene. This method was used in an attempt to combat some of the
disadvantages of the original false-belief task, such as the requirements to
understand mental states, like language, for example.

In addition to the issues of the
validity of the false-belief tasks, some other issues have been raised within
the field of research of children’s theory of mind. Firstly, a huge amount of
recorded research is made up of studies conducted in the Western world; thus it
may not be accurate to globally generalise
findings across different cultures. McCormick, Penelope, Olson & David (1991)
conducted a study on Quechua, preliterate, peasant children using three
different tasks to test theory of mind in 4 – 8 year olds and they made several
notable observations. Firstly, although they were able to answer series’ of
questions, all of the children across the age range struggled to follow details
of stories used in the tasks, even when they are acted out. Secondly, all of
the children had difficulty when presented with questions that examined their
understanding of both their own and others’ thoughts; as they performed significantly
lower on the ‘think’ questions. This contrasts their ability to perform fairly
well in the appearance/reality tasks, as a significant number of all ages were
able to make a distinction between the two. In fact, the elder age group (6-8
years) was reported to have ‘reached a ceiling in their performance’. However, the
data suggest that Quechua children do not develop theory of mind in their early
childhood, which obviously contradicts the assumptions drawn from the findings
of studies conducted on Western children. This suggests the development of
theory of mind may not be universal.

Furthermore, assumptions about
the development of theory of mind only take into account certain individuals. Most
children with autism fail tasks related to theory of mind. Happé (1995) observed data from 70 autistic, 34 mentally
handicapped and 70 normal children previously tested in other studies. Her
analysis found that normally developing children had a  50% chance of passing two tasks at the verbal
mental age of 4 years, autistic children took more than twice as long to reach
this probability of success. These findings suggest that autistic children
require much higher mental verbal age in order to pass false-belief tasks.


conclusion, despite the array of findings from a vast amount of studies conducted
regarding the age of acquisition of children’s theory of mind, pinpointing the
exact moment when children gain theory of mind is near impossible; for a number
of reasons. Primarily, and perhaps most crucially, individual differences play
a huge part in acquisition of theory of mind, i.e. some children will have a
higher level of cognitive functioning at a certain age than others will, which
results in a sooner acquisition of theory of mind for those particular
children. Additionally, children with developmental disorders such as autism
cannot fall under the assumptions made by the findings of research that does
not include them, as it has been found that they take many years longer to gain
a certain understanding of theory of mind, if they ever do. Secondly, it is not
completely clear if the process by which children develop theory of mind is a
momentary occurrence. Evidence from studies on younger children, such as that
of Lempers, Flavell & Flavell (1977) and Wellman & Estes (1986)
may suggest that it is in fact a lengthier process that takes places over time.

Overall, this essay can conclude
that, along with a sufficient amount of evidence for specific ages of
acquisition of theory of mind, whether it be age 4 years or younger, perchance there
is no specific age at which theory of mind becomes solidified in a child’s